‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
In William Shakespeare's Richard III, the doomed king rhetorically offers his crown in exchange for a horse when his own steed is killed in the heat of battle.
If Shakespeare was alive today, Richard's oft-quoted battlefield lament could just as easily have been that of veteran jockey Perry Winters, as Assiniboia Downs heads into its second month of thoroughbred racing.
Unlike His Majesty, who eventually met with a disastrous end, Winters' situation appears to have suddenly taken a turn for the better.
Winters chose to race at the Downs this year in hopes of logging the last 41 wins he requires to hit 3,000. His credentials are solid. The 31-year veteran is a seven-time leading jockey in Alberta. Until recently, however, the rides just haven't been coming his way. Last month, Winters managed only one or two rides a night. To date he's had only 23 trips with three wins, four seconds and a third.
In comparison, David Lopez, the Downs' current leading rider, has had 65 trips (15-7-6), Janine Stianson 75 (12-13-10) and Jocelyne Kenny 56 (11-8-9).
Again tonight, Winters has only two rides. On Saturday however, he'll be busy as he takes the reins in five of eight races. He'll be on Royal Banner (10-1) in the third; Wagels (7-2) in the fourth; Rhea Sunshine (15-1) in the fifth; Lotta Jazz (10-1) in the seventh and Hesa Comin (10-1) in the eighth.
"Finally I'll be able to perform," said Winters, 48, "rather than riding just one or two horses, and then sitting around watching everybody else ride."
Admittedly, all five horses are long shots, but he's not concerned, as he pointed out that long shots do come in every now and then. "I'm feeling a little bit better now. It looks like I'm getting more rides and my agent (Kirt Contois) says I should be getting into a few more barns soon."
So what was the problem?
Winters and Contois blamed it on a shortage of horses, necessitating small fields of five or six horses per race. Contois added that it's also a numbers game. "We've had a lot of five- and six-horse fields. Janine is going to get a lot rides, Lopez is going to get a lot and so is Kenny. So if those three are in the race that leaves only two or three spots, with 18 riders competing for them."
"Janine is a good rider," said Winters, "but I watch these guys ride, and I know I can ride with them. It's been pretty frustrating."
Assiniboia Downs CEO and track announcer Darren Dunn empathized with Winter's situation, but said that May has been a horrendous month for the Downs. "Our smaller field sizes in May was by far and away due to the fact we had a very aggressive schedule to accommodate the Red River Ex by adding extra race days. We are not racing during the Ex., (June 16-28) this year, because of access concerns we have due to the Centre Port infrastructure project (which has cut off Saskatchewan Avenue and the Perimeter).
"Our attendance is challenged during the Ex each year, so what we did to work through that is bring people in through Saskatchewan Avenue, down our back stretch. Well, this year we don't have access to Saskatchewan. This caused us to add races in May, which in turn caused our field size to come down, and made it look like we have less horses than we do."
Dunn says more horses are on the way. Yavapai Downs in Prescott, Ariz., recently cancelled its summer program, leaving hundreds of horses stranded. "Within hours (of the cancellation) I had race secretary Ray Miller on a plane to meet them (track officials) face to face. I think we should be getting about 40-50 horses out of there. Also, after the Ex break, I have another 30 horses coming in."
"We're normally 750-800 horses every year," Dunn went on, "and I think we'll be well over 750 before we know it."
Meanwhile back in shed row, Contois anticipates changes which should soon free up even more rides for Winters. "There haven't been any divorces yet. The marriages (agreements between jockeys and trainers) are at the beginning, and divorces happen along the way," he said.